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Why joint working is vital for good outcomes; How to work effectively in school-home partnership

Liz Murray (Founder of consultancy Spotlight Education Support & SENCo at Priestnall School) and Claire Ryan (Parent to young people with SEND and founder of www.ChatterPack.net) join forces to write about the challenges, solutions and very real benefits of joint working.

Liz: What does Joint Working mean?

As we approach the start of the new academic year, we will hear the phrase ‘home-school partnerships’, but what does this really mean?

Parents of students with SEND know joint working with the professionals who are responsible for supporting their child is essential and September is timely to lay, or reset, the foundations for successful joint working. As an experienced SENCo, I also consult in other schools and mentor new SENCos and I spent much of last academic year speaking about effective ‘Co-Production’ in practice. I developed my thinking by seeking parent perspectives and listening to inspiring speakers such as Sherann Hillman (PIPS). She speaks about how you can ‘feel’ a positive meeting with all of your senses! This is true but how do we get to that point?

We know that co-production is excellent practice and we know how powerful outcomes for young people can be when the working relationship between parent, child and professionals is a genuine collaboration. But, like any other professional or personal relationship, this takes time, thought and planning on both sides of the partnership to make it successful.

What do young people think?

Joint working isn’t just about parents and professionals, to be successful it should centralise the experience of the child or young person. I asked some of my year 9 and 10 students with SEND what ‘joint working’ meant to them and these were the words and phrases that they came up with:

  • Equal footing

  • Producing something together

  • Listening to each other

  • Agreeing

  • Compromising

These words and phrases above all have connotations of equality. Any relationship will flounder if either party feel that there is an imbalance of power. It’s important for SENCos and parents to genuinely recognise and acknowledge that both parties bring value to a truly collaborative partnership as represented in this slide:

What does successful joint working look like?

I had a memorably successful partnership with Carmen and her parents. Carmen has cerebral palsy and, when I met her, also suffered from extreme anxiety which stemmed the barriers that her physical disability presented; she was cognitively able though Carmen’s parents were concerned that she would miss out on a complete educational experience or not reach her potential. I started working with Carmen and her family when I was a relatively new SENCO and the support that they gave to me was instrumental in my being able to do my job well.

We had many telephone calls, meetings, conferences, and reviews during our time working together. We didn’t always completely agree and often had differing perspectives, but there was mutual respect and willingness to listen and work out solutions together that could only be with genuine trust and an open mind on both sides. Below are a few of the many successes we achieved together. Carmen has grown into a confident young woman and is now studying architecture at university.

Claire: Why do children need parents and schools to create positive and successful partnerships?

I can only speak from our experience, but within that experience, we’ve had both good and not-so-good relationships with schools. An example for one of our children was when they attended a maintained specialist ASD provision.

We felt right from the start that this wasn’t the right placement for our child, and we had many concerns. However, our concerns were not discussed in detail with us and we saw no evidence of any attempt to try to address them. Each term a new IEP would arrive in the post, something which we’d had no input into. Annual reviews always started with ‘our child’s words’ and their ‘views about school’, but our child was unable to form sentences or use the vocabulary which these views contained. Decisions were made about our child’s education without any discussion and without our knowledge and after 4 years at the school, our child was really struggling. At just 8 years old, our child was assessed by specialists as being “at serious risk of significant mental health difficulties”.

Then came the next stage of education – a maintained secondary school with an ASD unit attached. We feared that we might have been branded as ‘pushy parents’ or something similar. However, during the very first meeting with the SENCO, we realised that this wasn’t the case at all. Or if it was, that the SENCO had made a decision to form their own opinion.

The SENCO and tutor initiated a partnership with us and addressed the power balance from day one. They not only emailed us regularly to relay information, but also to seek our expertise and more importantly, they followed the advice that we gave. We were never given reason to think that they doubted we would know what works. They supported our child to settle into their new environment using a personalised approach, rather than a pre-planned, generic transition plan. They listened to professionals and put in place strategies to support. They didn’t follow the EHCP to the letter which likely resulted in the school saving money, however they used their creativity, experience, expertise and they met our child’s needs in ways which were just as effective, if not even more so!

There have been some issues over the years, it would be unrealistic to assume there wouldn’t be, but the Headteacher and tutors ask that we share any issues with them immediately so that they can be addressed before they become problems. They admire and respect our knowledge of the system and because they truly value the common goal that we have – to have our child’s needs met in order for them to achieve and thrive, not to merely ‘cope’, when it’s necessary, they support us in challenging the local authority. Together, as a team.

Three years on and our child is now a young person. No longer “at serious risk of significant mental health difficulties”. No longer having regular meltdowns after school. No longer isolated within an unsuitable peer group and is flourishing academically, socially and emotionally. Teamwork works!

Liz: Practical Strategies for Effective Meetings – for parents:

Ideally, professionals will plan an effective meeting, but this isn’t always the case. Regardless of how organised the professional is or not, when I support parents of children with SEND I advise them to prepare for a meeting at school in the same way as they would for a meeting at work:

  • Plan for the meeting, agree beforehand what the purpose of the meeting is

  • Think through the desired outcomes and possibly have a pre-meeting to discuss this with whoever is attending with you

  • Agree at the start what the meeting will achieve; usually a plan to move forward

  • During the meeting be mindful of the plan; keep checking in on the goals

  • At the end of the meeting check what has been agreed, the next steps and who is responsible for each

  • A written record of the next steps should be circulated post-meeting with agreed dates to review actions.

Claire: Tips for facilitating an inclusive meeting – for teachers and SENCOs:

  • Ask parents how they feel about attending this, and other meetings, and if they have any concerns
  • Try to establish whether parents have any barriers to fully accessing meetings and information shared. For example, literacy difficulties, communication differences, etc.
  • The idea of being in a room full of professionals can feel intimidating for some parents. Therefore, inform them that they are welcome to bring an advocate, friend or family member with them if they wish.
  • Share roles within meetings equally asking parents and/or the child if they would like to chair.
  • Agree on the agenda beforehand to ensure all attending (including the child) feel they will have the opportunity to discuss issues important to them.
  • Offer parents various methods of taking part in meetings, particularly if they are unable to attend. For example, they could provide a written report, there could be a pre-meeting conversation, an email exchange, etc.
  • Ask parents and children how they would like to be addressed within meetings. Many parents really don’t like being called ‘Mum’ or ‘Dad’.
  • When discussing or relaying parent input, try to avoid using any emotive terminology which would not be used in relation to professional input.
  • Offer a quick de-briefing after the meeting to avoid any miscommunications or misunderstandings. However, keep in mind that any key messages from the meeting which you feel are the most important, might differ from that of the parent.
  • Offer the opportunity for parents to check any written notes, actions and next steps before they are finalised.

Claire and Liz: Our Ultimate Guide to what works!
This list is for professionals and parents – it’s relevant to both parties:
  • Keeping things student-centered – include the child or young person in at least part of any discussion, even if this is using another party to speak to them beforehand to gain their views or including them in a short section of the meeting. Do not filter the child’s perspective through an adult lens.
  • Open, positive conversations with mutual respect
  • Remaining mindful of the professional/parent relationship
  • Being solution-focused – recognising when there’s a barrier that can’t be overcome easily (by either party) and talking it through.
  • Being realistic and practical within the setting.
  • Anticipating issues and planning ahead as a team.
  • Trying to see the bigger picture – things will go wrong sometimes, even after discussions, so try not to sweat the small stuff – this is hard as a professional when it’s your job or as a parent if it’s your child, but it’s likely that the people involved will feel terrible when things don’t go to plan, and it may not be their fault.
  • Seeking out the skills of each person within the child’s team and utilising them.
  • Recognising that working as a team doesn’t always mean each person does the same or the same amount of work. Also, that very often it’s the child who has the biggest workload and/or challenges.
  • Actively addressing any power imbalance within the child’s team right at the start and working together as equals.
  • Being open to considering different perspectives and to discussing them further.
  • Trying to acknowledge or empathise with past experiences of all within the child’s team.
  • Offering ‘fresh starts’ whilst being aware and reflective, so as not to be swayed by others’ impressions or interpretations.
  • Being mindful of different forms of communication style as some professionals and some parents also have SEND.
  • Being open to asking parents questions such as, ‘what can I do to support you?’ in relation to formal meetings, communication, planning, reviewing, etc.
  • Not being afraid to say, ‘I don’t know’, or ‘could you help me with X?’
  • Whilst remaining realistic, being available to discuss concerns, to ‘de-brief’ before or after meetings and to continue to trial routes of communication until something works.

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